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View From Washington

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A mostly conservative crowd flush with former Bush administration officials streamed into the penthouse of the swanky Mandarin Hotel on Manhattan's west side Wednesday evening to raise money for the legal effort to overturn Proposition 8.

The throng of nearly 200 people -- including Nicolle Wallace, former Bush communications director; Lewis Eisenberg, former finance chair for the Republican National Committee and McCain '08; and Barbara Bush (the younger) -- ultimately amassed $1.3 million, which would go solely to the cause of advancing marriage equality nationwide.

Across town another fund-raiser unfolded at the Roosevelt Hotel. President Barack Obama, who once drew unprecedented crowds filled with thousands of believers on fire to see him, pushed tickets at a price of $50-$100 to fill a room of 650 in what Gail Sheehy described as "Obama's Fire Sale."

"It's Filene's," enthused one guest, wrote Sheehy, later noting that Dems still fell about 200 people short of capacity.

The president's fund-raiser reportedly pulled in $1.4 million, which will be funneled to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

On the west side, Paul Singer, a press-shy hedge fund baron who teamed up with Ken Mehlman to organize the pro-marriage event and gave heavily to the night's effort, told a moving story of paging through his gay son's wedding album as he sat between his son and son-in-law just one week ago.

"No moment better encapsulated for me the contribution to societal stability," he said, "than that moment of normalcy in leafing through that album."

Longtime LGBT activist David Mixner was one of about a dozen prominent equality advocates who attended the Mehlman-Singer fund-raiser, including lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, and Richard Socarides, former LGBT adviser and special assistant to President Bill Clinton.

Mixner said of the evening, "I never thought I would see the day in my lifetime" when a group of Republicans and equality activists gathered in the same room to rally around the fight for same-sex marriage.

"I'm in awe of this night," he beamed. "Ya know, I've worked at this for years and years and years, and the purpose of a movement is to change minds and not to punish those who come late. And we've changed minds."

Meanwhile, back on the east side, President Obama was trying to reason with protesters who were loudly registering their discontent with his administration's funding for AIDS and efforts to end "don't ask, don't tell."

"We heard your point," Obama said in response to two of the shouting protesters. "This young lady here, she wants increases in AIDS funding. That's great. We increased AIDS funding. She'd like more. I'm sure we could do more -- if we're able to grow this economy again. That young man shouted, 'don't ask, don't tell.' ... As president, I said we would reverse it."

The following day's story in The Washington Post noted, "Such heckling of Obama at Democratic fundraisers has become routine in recent months. The president was interrupted in April and May -- both times at fundraisers for Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) - by people protesting the president's pace on eliminating 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

But the hecklers' cries appear to have continually fallen on deaf ears at the White House. The "hope" and "change" president has not lived up to expectations on LGBT equality, ostensibly squandering the unprecedented Democratic majorities he was endowed with upon taking office.

This week we were once again reminded that the Pentagon is the most powerful lobby in Washington when the Senate failed to advance the defense authorization bill, to which "don't ask, don't tell" repeal was attached. What the American people say they want in poll after poll is not Washington's concern. And even after lawmakers watered down the repeal measure with so many concessions that it was merely a shadow of its former self and ultimate control of when and how the policy would be changed was placed solidly in the hands of the Defense Department, military leadership still wasn't satisfied.

"Well, it's clear that -- what the president's position on this is, [is also] mine and the chairman's," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters at a Thursday press conference. "The chairman's and my position is similar to the [service] chiefs in the respect that we believe legislation -- the best legislation would be legislation informed by the review that we have going on."

The president and the Democrats may not get it. Maybe they dismiss these repeat hecklers as the crazed cries of a special interest group. Perhaps they are so worried about upsetting the apple cart before the midterms that they fail to see the necessity of doing something to excite their base, such as righting injustices that every progressive in the country as well as many moderates now view as a stain on our collective conscience.

But the rest of the nation is watching, and they know that the political process is undeniably failing LGBT Americans and America itself.

As The Denver Post wrote Thursday, Equality Takes A Back Seat Again.

And The New York Times editorial board suggested that if Congress fails to act after the midterms, the president could end the discriminatory policy by not defending a law that Judge Virginia Phillips declared unconstitutional.

It was an immediate acknowledgment that if the legislative effort dies, people will be looking to the president -- the executive branch -- to finally right this wrong.

The White House and Democrats may still see LGBT equality as the cause of a fringe group, but the rest of the country is reflecting something entirely different back to them. And the fact that they can't fill a room in New York during the height of election season is worth a look in the mirror.

Perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it best during her speech for Pride month. Echoing her famous sentiment from Beijing a decade earlier about women's rights, Clinton declared, "Gay rights are human rights."

Conservatives on the west side of Manhattan embraced that sentiment Wednesday evening, while on the east side, the president spent yet another night trying to assuage the call to justice with words that ring more hollow by the minute.
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